December 4th, 2020 by Jennifer Sensiba
Volkswagen recently interviewed a former German constitutional judge, Professor Udo di Fabio. When asked about how Germany’s constitution would treat autonomous vehicles, he offered some insight, including both allowing autonomous vehicles and whether manual driving will be allowed after the technology matures. One key quote, which this article will put in context: “People should be able to decide whether to surrender the steering wheel or not.”
Before I go on, I need to apologize to any German readers, because the rest of us need some key background that you probably got in school. Feel free to skip ahead if you are already familiar with Germany’s constitution and its history. As an American, I’ve been familiar with our basic laws, but needed to find out just what a German constitutional judge does. In some ways, I’m a little envious that the United States doesn’t have something like the Constitutional Courts.
After the downfall of the Nazi regime, the drafters of the new German constitution knew that they needed to do a better job than was done with the Weimar constitution. Technically speaking, that previous constitution was in force all the way up to 1945. Hitler and the Nazi Party exploited its weaknesses to come to power, and that was certainly a horror that the German people did not wish to repeat. So, the new constitution was built with some very robust safeguards for human rights, including an equivalent to the US Bill of Rights, but one that’s essentially unamendable, so that no future government can erase the rights and form a totalitarian regime (at least not under the pretense of legality). There’s even a “right to resist” when someone is overthrowing the constitutional order and other remedies are unavailable (something that’s implied in the US constitution, but not explicitly spelled out).
Another robust safeguard is the system of Constitutional Courts. In the United States, fighting for rights in court can be an expensive and lengthy process, often taking years to go from initial complaint to a final ruling in the Supreme Court. Hiring lawyers to do this for you can cost millions of dollars, effectively creating a nasty barrier that denies rights to all but the wealthy and those who are able to raise funds. In Germany, one can file a “constitutional complaint” (akin the the Spanish writ of amparo) or other writs to go directly to the court under specific conditions. Many complaints don’t go through, but it does allow for speedy remedy under the right conditions to protect against tyranny.
The reason I share all this is to explain just how important individual rights are under German law, as well as to explain who Volkswagen interviewed so all readers can put the information from the interview in context.
After serving on the Constitutional Court from 1999 to 2011, Prof. di Fabio served as Chairman of the Ethics Committee for Automated Driving until 2017. Given his experience on civil rights in Germany and then helping study automated driving for years, you’d probably find few with a better idea of where German law is going when it comes to autonomous vehicles.
What Was Said
When asked about how the German constitution will treat self-driving cars, Prof. di Fabio said:
“The ethics committee that I had the honor of chairing some time ago has drawn up 20 guidelines for the introduction of automated driving systems – and the German government has signaled that it intends to follow them. One key point: the state must promote new technologies if they lead to significantly lower accident rates. But it must not put citizens in a situation where they inevitably have to entrust themselves to automated systems. People should be able to decide whether to surrender the steering wheel or not.”
I’m not a lawyer, and I’m certainly not a German lawyer, but after looking around an English translation of Germany’s constitution, I can see where this all is likely to come from. In Article 2, it says, “Every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity,” which may be interpreted to protect a right to use autonomous vehicles should they protect life. That may be why the former judge said the state “must promote” the technology if it proves to be safer.
At the same time, though, Article 11 says, “All Germans shall have the right to move freely throughout the federal territory.” Combined with other rights protected by the constitution, this may lead to a right to not use self-driving vehicle technology, so that people not wishing to trust machines to drive aren’t denied freedom of movement.
I’m sure there’s a lot more to it, so if you’re a German lawyer, definitely feel free to correct me or add to our understanding in the comments!
Also, when asked about whether insurers might end up effectively banning human driving by making it prohibitively expensive, he said, “I think that is certainly possible. If the technology is significantly safer, then such questions will arise. However, a society has to decide whether it is willing to accept this logic or whether self-driving is a basic right that must be defended.”
Thus, a right to human driving may even be protected from private infringement if that’s the will of German citizens.
Just to be clear, nothing here should be taken as solid information on German law or the future of human driving in Germany (or anywhere else). The former judge did acknowledge that the technology is still in its infancy, and there is a long way to go toward developing German law on this topic. However, he’s definitely a good source of information on where things appear to be headed at present, given his extensive experience on the topic.
Why This Matters
How the law treats self-driving cars is very important to the future of the technology. Some places are going to be hostile to even the testing of autonomous vehicles, while other places will embrace it early to help its development along. Once mature, some jurisdictions might even choose to ban human driving altogether on public roads if it’s far less safe than autonomous driving, and that’s something I’m personally against.
Just like with many other debates, it often comes down to the balance between the needs of the many and the needs of the few. Some will take the Spock approach, and prioritize the needs of the many to be safe from traffic accidents should autonomous vehicles prove themselves to be far safer than human drivers. Others (myself, for example) will lean toward the right of the individual to make informed choices on this. After all, I’d really rather not drive when tired or otherwise not in great shape to drive, and would definitely take advantage of the technology, but I still enjoy driving and want to take the wheel myself when I know I’m good for it.
How each jurisdiction deals with this question will be an interesting topic, and any time we can get an early peek from an expert on the topic, we are wise to take advantage of the information.
Even non-experts can have valuable insights on this topic, so feel free to argue with each other in the comments about this!
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5 radical visions for a 2050 food system
Just over a year ago, the Rockefeller Foundation put out a global call for proposals for radical reform of our food systems. More than 1,300 teams from 119 countries responded. The pile of submissions was whittled down to 79 semifinalists and then, last week, to 10 “bold ideas for tackling some of the world’s most pressing food systems challenges.” Each winner was awarded $200,000 to pursue their vision for reform.
The winning proposals cover a dizzying range of locations and issues — from food sovereignty on a Native American reservation to plant-based diets in metropolitan Beijing. But as I read them, the commonalities seem as prominent as the differences. Embedded in the ideas is an emerging consensus on the critical ingredients for food system reform, regardless where it takes place.
I encourage you to browse the final selection and see for yourself, but here’s my reading of that consensus:
Food systems must connect to local communities. There’s a stunning example of this need in the proposal from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The reservation occupies almost 2,000 square miles, yet has just three grocery stores. There are plenty of local farms, but most grow commodity crops such as soybeans. The result is a food desert surrounded by fertile land.
Technology is part of the solution. Agtech is often associated with highly efficient yet unsustainable practices, but the same tech can benefit sustainable approaches. In their vision of a holistic food system for the Netherlands, for example, Wageningen University researchers imagine farmers using drones to precisely target nutrient use. At the Stone Barns Center in upstate New York, the team wants to build a cold storage lab dedicated to extending the season for local crops.
It’s got to be regenerative. Almost every winner made it clear that regenerative agriculture is central to their vision. That was predictable given that the foundation sought proposals for a “regenerative and nourishing food future,” but it nevertheless reflects the growing importance of regenerative ag in food policy. (And perhaps the waning importance of organic?)
From linear to circular. Circular processes — the transformation of crop residues into compost, for instance — are a common feature of food system reform. But the Wageningen team ups the ante with a rallying cry for circular agriculture, circular cooking and circular chefs: “By 2050,” they write, “we have replaced the wasteful, linear model of our current food system with a circular one.” Among other things, this includes limiting livestock to numbers that can be supported on food waste and food byproducts. Which brings us to…
Plant-based diets. No surprise to hear entrants from North American and Europe advocate for this: These are regions where a reduction in emissions from meat production is seen as an essential way to reduce the climate impact of food. Perhaps only because I know less about food debates elsewhere, I was interested to see entries from China and Nigeria that also placed alternative proteins at the heart of their visions.
Before I sign off, I’ll mention one other, more controversial, commonality. Many visions are either explicitly or implicitly pitched in opposition to Big Ag. I see where this comes from: Chemical inputs and monocultures and livestock farming have undeniable negative impacts.
But Big Ag is more than that. It brings efficient land use, which prevents native ecosystems being converted to farmland, and sophisticated supply chains that provide year-round abundance at low prices. I don’t say this to gloss over the sector’s problems, but as we imagine a better system, we shouldn’t ignore the benefits of the current one.
Pioneering projects celebrated by foundation behind water documentary
Organisations that have embraced innovation to protect and enhance water supplies have been recognised for their pioneering work by the foundation behind the recent documentary film Brave Blue World.
Corporations including Apple, Nike and Facebook, along with utilities such as South East Water, Australia, have been named as recipients of the inaugural Lighthouse Awards, launched in December 2020 by the Brave Blue World Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to scientific and educational storytelling. The winning Lighthouse organisations, “named so because they are shining a light for others to follow”, have developed new ways of utilising technology, finance or partnerships to reduce their impact in water stressed regions or build resilience of their local water systems.
Their groundbreaking achievements were discovered by the Brave Blue World Foundation during the research phase of its powerful documentary, Brave Blue World, which aims to drive positive change in water.
Brave Blue World Foundation founder Paul O’Callaghan said: “Every industry has a vanguard; the pioneers we will all come to follow. In water, the work of these Lighthouses is beyond critical if we are to ensure there is enough freshwater for future generations.
“When exploring the world for fascinating water stories during the making of Brave Blue World, we met several companies that were blazing a trail of innovation, as they strived to become sustainable and circular in their operations.
“Wanting to celebrate and amplify their achievements is what led us to launch the Lighthouse Awards. In doing so, we hope to inspire others to take bold steps towards creating a sustainable water future and raise greater awareness of the fascinating work happening in the global water community.”
The winners’ selection process, carried out by adjudicators from technology market intelligence company BlueTech Research, was based on a number of criteria and split into project themes.
These included blue-green infrastructure, water reuse, smart water, water catchment enhancement, regeneration, innovation in policy, innovation in communications and innovation in partnerships.
The recipients of the Lighthouse Awards 2020 are:
Through partnership and engagement, sportswear multinational Nike has encouraged its suppliers to explore ways of reducing water used in their manufacturing processes. This has enabled knitted textile supplier, Vertical Knits, to introduce innovative water recycling and manufacturing process improvements at its site in Yucatan, Mexico, reducing freshwater use by 85% per kilogram of fabric. It has also achieved a 50% reduction in energy savings. The project will significantly reduce Nike’s overall water footprint, as well as the ease the impact on supplies at a local level.
Salesforce, a global leader in CRM (customer relationship management), collaborated with the City of San Francisco and Boston Properties to implement a blackwater system in Salesforce Tower San Francisco, the company’s worldwide headquarters, making it one of the first partnerships in the United States between a city government, a building owner and a tenant to support blackwater reuse in a commercial high-rise building. In Salesforce Tower, wastewater will be collected and treated onsite and works in tandem with the building’s rain catchment system. Once treated, the recycled water will recirculate through a separate pipe system to serve non-drinkable uses in the building for all tenants, like drip irrigation, toilet flushing and cooling towers. The system will be the largest onsite water recycling system in a commercial high-rise building in the United States, saving more than seven million gallons (approximately 26,500 m3) of fresh water a year. If these techniques become standard in urban areas, the impact on water resources will be significant, particularly in water-scarce and growing areas such as Miami and Las Vegas.
Prompted by relentless drought in the region, the Menlo Park, California headquarters of social media giant Facebook developed an onsite blackwater recycling system. The Menlo Park system recycles approximately 17 million gallons (approximately 64,000m3) of water annually between two buildings, setting the standard for commercial building recycling across the region. This is the first and largest district-scale blackwater recycling system in a commercial building in California.
When examining how best to meet the water needs for its data centre in Prineville, Oregon, technology leader Apple realised that one of the drivers of water stress in the basin was seasonal availability. Both the City and Apple faced a challenge in meeting their peak summer water needs, when the largely agricultural region also faces high demand. Apple partnered with the City of Prineville to explore the feasibility of an aquifer storage and recovery project, which would withdraw small amounts of groundwater evenly thoughout the year and store it for use during the summer peak, or even across years in the case of drought. Apple funded the US$8.7M project, which will store 180 million gallons (approximately 681,375m3) annually for the City, and which, through the Deschutes Basin groundwater mitigation program, also returns an equal amount of water to the Crooked River to maintain instream flows. This approach demonstrates the value of taking time to understand the specific context of each basin, and devise solutions through partnership with other stakeholders that can address the drivers of water stress and the needs of all users.
Heineken Spain launched a project with landscape restoration expert Commonland and the Andalusian government, to restore four degraded lagoons in the wetlands of Doñana, near Seville, by improving soil structure, water filtration and replanting trees. The brewing company’s aim was to compensate and return 420,000m3 of water each year to Doñana. Research reveals the project balanced more than one million m3 of water per year, doubling the initial target and creating a successful template for restoration globally.
San Francisco Public Utilities Commission
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s pioneering approach to water reuse is working on both a state and national level in the United States, helping to establish guidance and policy frameworks. Its achievements include leading San Francisco to becoming first city in the US to mandate newly built buildings, of over 250,000 ft² (approximately 23,225m²), to install onsite water reclamation systems.
South East Water, Australia
South East Water, Australia Aquarevo is a unique collaboration between Australian utility South East Water and developer Villawood Properties. They have created a residential development, south east of Melbourne, where homes feature an unprecedented range of water-saving features, such as a system that captures rainwater for use in baths and showers, as well as in-home water reuse technologies to ensure efficiency standards and monitoring. The development is on track to become Australia’s most water efficient urban housing development.
The Glenmorangie Distillery
The Glenmorangie whiskey distillery, in the far north of Scotland, overlooks the protected Dornoch Firth. In a unique research and action partnership, Glenmorangie has collaborated with the Marine Conservation Society and Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, on a project to preserve the current diversity of marine life and reintroduce the rare European flat oyster. The project led to the return of 20,000 oysters and Glenmorangie is now helping conservationists restore oyster populations in at least 15 European countries.
Intel has invested in multiple watershed projects through collaboration with The Nature Conservancy to fund a portfolio of projects that solve local water challenges. Their goal for 2030 is to achieve net positive water use by conserving 60 billion gallons (227 million m3) of water and funding external water restoration projects. In Bangalore, India Intel partnered with Clean International who is working with a local NGO. Bangalore was famous for its lakes which have been degraded by pollution. Together, they are rebuilding the natural infrastructure of the lake, that was there at one point to promote groundwater recharge. At Lake Nanjapura, they are excavating sediment, taking the sediment that they recover and building a walking path around the lake, planting trees to shade the water to create a natural storage bowl for water, thus making sure that no drop of water is wasted in this dry region and every drop of rainwater is stored for future use.
Xylem and Manchester City Football Club
Water technology provider Xylem and Manchester City Football Club launched a partnership to “challenge water complacency among one billion people globally by engaging football fans and the general population”. Over the past two years, the partnership has exceeded all expectations by a gaining total reach of more than 770 million engagements across all platforms, including through an awareness-raising film and a unique Football & WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) Education Framework. This partnership is educating the general public on water and encouraging water awareness and stewardship globally.
More details on the Lighthouse Awards 2020 are available at www.braveblue.world/lighthouseawards
New research highlights impacts of weedkiller on wildlife
Prolonged exposure to environmentally relevant concentrations of the weedkiller Roundup causes significant harm to keystone species according to new research at the University of Birmingham.
A team in the University’s School of Biosciences used waterfleas, or Daphnia, to test the effects prolonged exposure to concentrations of Roundup deemed safe by regulatory agencies.
They found that even at approved regulatory levels, the weedkiller causes embryonic development failure, significant DNA damage, and also interferes with the animals’ metabolism and gut function.
These findings are important since Daphnia are at the heart of aquatic food webs. They can be used to assess the impacts of environmental changes on ecosystems. The results also offer a starting point for tracking these effects across different species, including the potential effects of herbicides on humans.
Lead researcher, Dr Luisa Orsini, says: “Research surrounding Roundup has been controversial since it first appeared on the market in the 1970s. Claims that it causes diseases and disorders ranging from cancer to autism stack up against industry-paid reports arguing that the product has no untoward effects.
“The problem is that much of the evidence is rooted in outdated toxicity tests which only look at the number of animals that die on exposure to extremely high concentrations of these chemicals. These tests also overlook the pathological effects arising from long-term exposure to low doses.
“What we’re proposing is that toxicity is measured by looking at what happens to the animal at a molecular and fitness level following long-term exposure, which encompasses the entire animal life cycle.”
This ‘systems biology’ approach will enable researchers to understand the changes caused by these chemicals on fundamental functions, such as the ability to metabolize sugars or to repair wound tissue. By using similarity in molecular functions across species, the researchers can also infer the implications of these chemicals on humans.
The approach tested by the researchers can be applied to a wide number of chemicals in the environment. As well as herbicides, the team is applying their methods to investigate insectides, antinflammatory drugs, antibiotics and heavy metals (arsenic), commonly found in contaminated water supplies around the world.
The team is working with the UK Environment Agency to bring new methods to regulatory agencies to screen for chemicals and their effect on biodiversity. Scientists and the Environment Agency have a long term goal of modernizing environmental practice to more effectively regulate the use of chemicals and mitigate their impact on humans and the environment.
“Using our methods it will be possible to identify and rank the most harmful chemicals that are getting into the environment,” says Dr Orsini. “We can’t stop environmental contamination in one step, but by identifying the worst offenders, we can work with industrial partners in a more targeted and effective way.”
Knocking landfill on the head: Recycling scheme celebrates three years
The National Hard Hat Recycling Scheme recently celebrated three years in operation. It was introduced in November 2017, with the intention of providing a user-friendly method for old hard hats to bypass traditional waste disposal routes, thereby ensuring end-of-life hats could go directly into reprocessing.
The group behind the scheme, Yes Recycling, initially launched it as a scheme for the construction industry. This followed 6 months working with Berkeley Homes. The firm then built a bespoke recycling capability at its Buckinghamshire facility specifically to recycle hard hats. This built on its experience with developing new recycling methods for a range of everyday plastic items, including plastic banknotes, crisp packets, coffee cups and shop hangers.
Yes Recycling said hard hat recycling presented some unusual challenges, perhaps unsurprising with a product that has been designed to be difficult to destroy. But the group claims to have succeeded in finding a way to break the hats down and recover the precious plastics.
Since its inception the scheme has predominantly grown through word-of-mouth.It now boasts members from a disparate range of sectors, including transport, utilities, defence, wildlife conservation, tree-surgery, extreme sports and construction. Its membership is drawn from every corner of the UK and is growing daily.
Sally Marquis, a Technical Surveyor with Network Rail, shared her experience: “Recycling our hard hats through Yes Recycling has enabled us to support our Environmental Sustainability Strategy by reducing waste to landfill through the waste hierarchy. It is positive to see companies such as Yes Recycling investing in initiatives to support businesses in contributing to the circular economy.
“Maybe in the future, an old hard hat could be recycled into a new one and we fully support that process.”
Director of Yes Recycling, Omer Kutluoglu, said of the scheme, “When we launched it, we really didn’t know if the scheme would take off or not. But with the encouragement of Berkeley Homes, we gave it a go. I’m really glad we did. The response has been astonishing. We have been met with a wall of enthusiasm…and not just in the initial launch phase, but an enthusiasm sustained over the last three years.”
“The consistent growth and success of the scheme is testament to people across the UK determined to do the right thing, not just for themselves but for their companies and the environment.
Their enthusiasm and positivity is immensely uplifting. Behind every single membership lies unsung heroes making a difference.”
Since the scheme’s inception, members have sent in many thousands of hard hats. These are broken down and the different materials (including different polymer types) are separated and recovered. The recovered materials are then cleaned, filtered and re-made into new plastics ready to go back into British industry.
Omer continued, “One day we hope that we can make this a fully circular process, where the recycled material from the hard hats is put back directly into new ones.” But for now, he said, the group is happy to ensure all valuable raw material used in making hard hats “is properly recovered and fully recycled back into British manufacturing at end-of-life.”
For more information on the National Hard Hat Recycling Scheme, visit: www.yesrecycling.org/hard-hat-recycling
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